The history of Indigenous representation in film & television

A look back at the highs and lows of Indigenous characterization

Quality on-screen representation is vital.
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It’s not controversial to state that Hollywood has a representation problem. In over 100 years of productions, positive and well-rounded Indigenous characters have been notably missing from film and television. The history of Indigenous representation is a long and messy one, with the absence of Indigenous voices in Hollywood resulting in decades of misrepresentation. 
 
In the early years of film, Westerns were the bulk of Indigenous representation on screen. In these portrayals, hostile “Indians” were often pitted against cowboy protagonists played by big names like John Wayne. The popular early 20th-century genre was defined by its Indigenous characters, despite them being used as little more than bodies for the wild west heroes to slaughter. 
 
However, it wasn’t long before the genre took a turn for the better. Little Big Man, released in 1970, turned the stereotypical Indigenous portrayal on its head. The film has been described as a revisionist Western, with Indigenous characters shown sympathetically and the United States military forces as the villains. The film starred Canadian actor, Chief Dan George, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. Revisionist westerns were popularized in the 1960s and 70s, bringing an improved perspective to the ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’ narrative. 
 
Outside of the Western genre, there was little Indigenous representation in film and television for much of the 20th century. Once Westerns depleted in popularity, it was hard to find film and television with even the mention of an Indigenous character. The most prominent genre outside of Westerns to feature Indigenous characters was animation. Disney’s Peter Pan featured incredibly problematic portrayals of Indigenous people in 1953, which has since been acknowledged by the studio. Peter Pan is one of the select films that now features a non-skippable disclaimer before viewing on Disney+, explaining the racist nature of certain scenes. 
 
Other animated films featuring Indigenous characters released in the 1990s and early 2000s were met with a controversial response. Pocahontas, Brother Bear, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron all featured sympathetic Indigenous representation, but still relied heavily on stereotypes. Pocahontas has been criticized for misrepresenting and romanticizing the truly horrifying story of the girl it’s based on, while Brother Bear plays into Disney’s unfortunate tradition of turning people of colour into animals for the bulk of their screen time. There has also been a significant amount of Indigenous Islander representation in animation, with Lilo & Stitch and Moana garnering a more positive response.  
 
In the 2010s, Indigenous representation in film and television has grown and developed in Hollywood. The decade saw a general push for more non-white, non-straight, and non-male representation in popular films, resulting in more screen time for Indigenous characters. While there has been widespread improvement in the quality of the representation, there’s still a long way to go. In 2015, a dozen Native American actors walked off the set of Netflix’s satirical western The Ridiculous Six due to the script being disrespectful toward Indigenous peoples. Netflix responded to backlash by defending the jokes as satirical, claiming the cast was “in on the joke.”
 
However, some filmmakers are more willing to listen. The blockbuster film Wonder Woman, released in 2017, is one of the biggest films in recent history to have an Indigenous supporting character. Canadian actor Eugene Brave Rock played Chief Napi, a Blackfoot demi-god who accompanies the title character in her journey across Europe. The actor said he was originally worried about his character relying on stereotypes, but when he approached the director with his concerns, she gave him “unprecedented” control of his character. It’s clear this is a landmark of positive Indigenous representation in Hollywood: listening to Indigenous voices. 
 
In the third season of CBC’s Anne with an E, a television show based off L.M.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Indigenous characters were introduced along with a storyline about residential schools. The show made certain not only to cast Indigenous actors, but seek out Indigenous screenwriters to bring the story to life. 
 
The story is centered around Ka’kwet, a 12-year-old Mi’kmaq girl who is taken to a residential school in Nova Scotia and is able to escape and return home. Unfortunately, almost as soon as she is home, she’s captured again and brought back to the school. The story is painful, but it’s an honest representation of the experiences of generations of Indigenous people in Canada. The season ends with Ka’kwet’s parents travelling to Nova Scotia with the aim of bringing their daughter home, but to no success. The story is then cut short, as Anne was cancelled at the end of the third season—a decision which has been criticized for being damaging for Indigenous viewers, who are made to relive the worst parts of their history only to never have it resolved. 
 
However, not all representation in the last decade has been thoughtful. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt featured a controversial storyline in which one of the show’s leads was revealed to be Lakota. Played by Jane Krakowski, the show follows a long history of Indigenous characters being played by non-Indigenous actors. However, the surrounding characters in the storyline were played by Indigenous actors. The response to the storyline was both positive and negative, with some criticizing the thoughtlessness of having a white woman playing an Indigenous role and others happy to see any Indigenous representation on such a large platform.
 
While the 21st century continues to produce problematic representations of Indigenous people, it has also brought a renaissance of Indigenous-made film. Better and cheaper access to filmmaking tools available outside Hollywood’s exclusive gates has allowed people to take storytelling into their own hands. The result has been a myriad of complex, important stories that feature both the joy and the pain of Indigenous people’s experiences.
 
Taking their stories into their own hands, Indigenous writers, actors, directors, and producers are expanding Indigenous representation into every genre of film and television. From family drama Empire of Dirt to sports film The Grizzlies, an increasing number of Indigenous films are gaining recognition. In the past three years, over 20 Indigenous-made films have been shown at the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival. As more and more Indigenous filmmakers break into the industry, Indigenous peoples’ stories on screen will finally have the chance to be told the right way.

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